Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podacst for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 9:30-50

[The lectionary divides this passage into two and reads it over two Sundays. The assumption behind dividing the passage in this way seems to be that the various different parts of the passage are only loosely connected without a coherent theme or argument to hold them all together. In my podcast, I take a dissenting view. While the connection between the different parts of the passage isn’t spelled out by St Mark, there is, nevertheless, a coherence to the passage that makes it important to look at it as a whole.]

In the podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, I spoke of how, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah. This was a significant moment, one of inspired insight into who Jesus was. Despite this recognition, Peter had not, however, grasped what being the Messiah meant for Jesus. For Peter, being the Messiah meant freeing Israel from her enemies and establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. It was about power and glory.

For Jesus, however, being the Messiah was about suffering and death, and he told his disciples that this was what was going to happen to him. Peter simply could not accept it, and, in trying to convince Jesus that this could not happen to him, Peter became the mouthpiece of Satan and was severely rebuked by Jesus.

Jesus then spelt out to both those who were his disciples and to any who were thinking of becoming one, what it means to be his follower. It means having to live as one who has died, as one who is willing to abandon their own goals, ambitions, and dreams in order to follow Christ on a path of self-denial and suffering. Jesus’ words were no more popular then than they are now.

The disciples can't be blamed for not understanding Jesus. We today have the benefit of living this side of the crucifixion. We have Jesus’ own words in the Gospels and the example of the saints, but, like the disciples, we still don't get it. There are churches that have built their success on telling people that believing in Jesus will make things better for them, and even that it will lead to riches and success. The idea that Jesus is there to help us find self-fulfilment and happiness runs deep in the church. We need to cast the beam out of our own eye, before seeking to cast the speck out of the eye of the disciples.

The disciples at least had an excuse. Everything they had been brought up to believe, and everything they had been taught and heard, led them to believe that the Messiah would be a heroic figure and the coming of his Kingdom a time when all God’s enemies would be defeated. Jesus’ own ministry, in which they now shared, was itself somewhat ambiguous in the message it gave out. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed the storm, and fed the multitude. What could he not do? With this evidence and experience before them, how could they think Jesus would suffer, be killed, and his life end in defeat?

What is more, what happened immediately after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi only confirmed that they were right in their understanding and that Jesus was wrong in his.

Just six days later up a mountain with three of his closest disciples, Jesus is transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah also appear and talk with him. A voice from heaven declares:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ (Mark 9:7)

Surely God’s Son is not going to suffer and be killed? Who will listen to him then?

Our Gospel reading begins, ‘They went on from there …’ After the transfiguration and what follows it, Jesus turns his attention specifically to the disciples and to preparing them for what lies ahead. He repeats that he will suffer and die (Mark 9:31), but they are just unable to understand him. They are convinced that Jesus is God’s Anointed, the One they have been hoping for. It is simply beyond them to understand that God’s Anointed must suffer and die, and they effectively block out what Jesus is saying to them. Again, much as we do today.

As far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is the Messiah. He is going to lead them in freeing Israel from the Romans, just as the Taliban in our own day have freed Afghanistan from the West. This certainty of victory leads them to the same discussion all human groups have. Who is the greatest and most important among them, his followers? Jesus is aware of their discussion and argument, even though they refuse, when he asks them, to tell him what they were talking about.

Jesus tells them that rather than aspiring to greatness, they must aspire instead to lowliness. Jesus says bluntly:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

Jesus then teaches them about what true greatness in a disciple looks like by using what is an enacted parable. Jesus takes a child and stands the child amongst them. He then takes the child in his arms and tells his disciples that whoever welcomes one such child welcomes him.

This is popularly understood as Jesus telling us that we must welcome children, which we should, but that is not Jesus’ point here. Part of the problem in understanding what Jesus is saying lies in our somewhat romanticised view of childhood. Childhood was somewhat different then to now. Children were property and had no rights. Just as they have no rights today in parts of our world. Many children died in childhood. Children were weak, vulnerable, and powerless. But yet again, we, like the disciples, just don’t understand what it is Jesus is saying.

Commentators find it hard to make sense of what follows this. It isn’t immediately obvious how what St Mark writes all links together and commentators resort to seeing it as simply being about what they call ‘catchwords’. One word in a saying suggests another saying that uses the same word. There is, however, more to it than that, and there is a clear theme running through Jesus’ teaching in this passage that goes beyond the mere use of catchwords.

This passage is about discipleship. The disciples argue about who is the greatest disciple. Jesus explains that if true greatness is their goal, they too must become a ‘little one’. If they do, Jesus tells them, then they really are his disciples. St Mark writes that Jesus says:

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37)

What Jesus is in effect saying is that someone who becomes a servant becomes like him, and what could be greater than that? As Jesus will tell the disciples later:

‘… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:43-45)

In what at first appears a strange thing to say after Jesus has told them that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him, John, one of his closest disciples, tells Jesus about someone whom the disciples have seen casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples have tried to stop this unnamed exorcist because he is not following Jesus as part of Jesus’ group of disciples. Jesus’ words are usually understood to mean that we are to be more inclusive in our approach and that we are not to think that just because someone is not ‘one of us’, they are not a true disciple.

This, however, isn’t the issue here. Jesus has said that anyone who welcomes them welcomes him. Jesus is not wanting to weaken their sense of group identity by encouraging them to have a more inclusive attitude to those outside the group. His aim is quite the opposite; he is instead trying to strengthen it.

Jesus has now stopped teaching the crowds and has turned his attention to teaching the disciples. His disciples are the ‘little ones’ who represent him and who will continue his work. This inevitably raises the question of what Jesus’ disciples’ attitude should be to those who are not one of them. How should they view those who, while not exactly welcoming them, are not opposed to them either, that is, who are not against them?

Jesus takes a pragmatic approach. Jesus quotes a proverb, ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. In referring to himself and his disciples as ‘us’, Jesus again identifies with his disciples. Jesus, however, explains that while the unnamed exorcist is not a part of Jesus’ group of disciples, anyone using Jesus’ name in a positive way, will find it hard later to speak against Jesus. Indeed, Jesus says, anyone who gives even a cup of water to the disciples, because the disciples bear the name of Christ, will be rewarded. The unnamed exorcist may not have given any practical help to Jesus’ followers, but, by his positive use of Jesus’ name, he hasn’t hindered them either and that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Jesus is teaching his disciples how they should regard those who are not followers of Jesus, but who, by their actions, support those who are his followers in their work of telling people about him. Jesus’ followers are to be grateful to those who, while not disciples themselves, support the disciples in preaching the Gospel because the disciples bear the name of Christ; however small, or even unintended, that help may be. When Jesus speaks about how people who help his representatives will be rewarded, he isn’t talking about their salvation, but about the recognition their support will receive. That support may simply take the form of a positive attitude towards Jesus himself or, more substantially, by the giving of material help to his followers.

While such support is to be recognized and appreciated, anyone who causes problems for Jesus’ followers, can, however, expect to suffer the consequences. Anyone who obstructs one of these ‘little ones’ who believe in Jesus will be severely punished. Jesus says it would be better for them if they were to have a very heavy stone hung around their neck and for them to be thrown into the sea.

All support is to be welcomed, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, but opposition will be punished. The commitment of Jesus’ followers themselves is to be absolute. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of what Jesus has entrusted them to do.

As well as warning what will happen to anyone who causes one of his followers to stumble, Jesus challenges everyone to take seriously anything in their own life that causes them to stumble and to deal with it ruthlessly.

Using graphic imagery, Jesus tells them that if their hand or foot causes them to stumble, they should cut it off, or tear their eye out if it is responsible. It is better, says Jesus, to be maimed and enter eternal life and the Kingdom of God than to burn in hell. We should, Jesus is telling us, prioritize our eternal destiny whatever the cost to us now. The word Jesus uses for hell, in Greek, is ‘gehenna’. This was the rubbish tip in the valley of Hinnom to the south of Jerusalem where refuse was burnt. It provided a vivid image of the fate of those who don’t find the eternal life that Jesus offers in his Kingdom.

Jesus closes his teaching here by talking about salt. Everyone he says will be salted by fire. Salt was used as a purifying agent. God will use the fire of hell to deal with any who put obstacles in the way of people who are seeking to bring his Kingdom, but he will also use fire to purify those who belong to it.

There are two possible ways of understanding what Jesus means. St Peter uses the image of fire in his first letter. He writes:

‘… even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1Peter 1:6-7)

St Mark’s community was experiencing severe opposition possibly the same opposition that St Peter is referring to in his letter. Jesus could be telling the disciples that they are to expect persecution that will both test and purify their faith.

Jesus could also be using the image in the way that St Paul uses it. In first Corinthians, St Paul writes of how the work of God’s servants will be tested on the day of judgement:

‘… the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.’ (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

Jesus has just spoken of how it is better to enter life maimed than to be thrown into hell. It makes sense, then, to see Jesus’ words about everyone being salted by fire as a reference to the Day of Judgement.

It is perhaps possible to combine these two ways of understanding Jesus’ words. St Paul writes, again in his first letter to the Corinthians:

‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.’ (1 Corinthians 11:31-32)

All will one day experience the ‘fire’ of God’s judgement. God in his mercy uses the fire of persecution and suffering to purify our faith now, so that we may be saved from the fire of hell on the Day when all will be judged.

Finally, Jesus tells his disciples they are to have ‘salt in themselves’. They must take seriously the need for their faith and service to be purified. In taking seriously the need to get themselves and their attitudes right, they are to be at peace with one another rather than arguing with one another about who is the greatest.

In this passage, then, Jesus is saying that if his followers want to be great, they can only become great by becoming one of his ‘little ones’, who, like children, have no rights of their own, but who instead live to serve others. Such a one truly represents Jesus and anyone who welcomes such a one welcomes not only Jesus, but the One who sent him. They are to regard positively anyone who speaks well of Jesus or who offers them help in speaking of him.

Anyone, however, who puts an obstacle in their way as followers of Christ will be severely punished. Furthermore, everyone should seek to remove any obstacles in their own life, whatever it takes and however much it costs. God will ensure the purity his Kingdom either by the fire of hell or the purifying fire of persecution or judgement. His followers should, then, purify themselves and be at peace with one another.

But how does all this apply to us today?

Firstly, it reminds us that Jesus has a very different view of what constitutes greatness to that of the world around us. Greatness in most people’s minds is about the success we achieve for ourselves; it is about position, power, and privilege, and it is always tied up with money.

Our role models are the rich, famous, and powerful whose images are everywhere. And as long as they are rich, famous, and powerful, we don't much care what they do to achieve their success. They can actually do something that requires hard work and dedication, or they can simply become famous for being famous. Just like many of the social media stars of our online world!

They might be extreme examples, but they embody and personify the values and attitudes of the society that makes their fame and success possible. These may be our attitudes and values, but they are not our Lord’s. As we shall see, Jesus tells the rich man to give away all that he has to the poor and follow him (Mark 10:21). He tells his disciples that the first shall be last and that the greatest in his Kingdom is the one who is the servant of all.

For Jesus being great is not about what we achieve and what we get, but what we lose and give up. The greatest is the one who is willing to become the least and a servant of all.

Jesus held up a child as a model of what being his follower should look like. Not the sweet innocent child of social media pictures, but the poor, despised, and powerless child that our Lord himself became. As Jesus’ followers, we are to become one such a ‘little one’ like him, and in becoming such a one we represent both him and the One who sent him.

Jesus is not saying that when we welcome anyone who is poor, despised, and powerless that we are welcoming him, as is often argued, but that when we become one of his little ones who believe in him, anyone who then welcomes us welcomes Jesus and the One who sent him. Jesus is talking about what we need to become in order to represent him.

Yes, we must love our neighbour as ourself, and, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows, our neighbour is anyone who needs our help, but this is not what Jesus is saying in this passage. Here Jesus is talking about what a disciple should look like, not what those who his disciples minister to should look like. The question here is not, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, but, ‘Who is Jesus’ disciple?’. Again, the answer Jesus gives is that it is ‘one of these little ones who believes in me’. Jesus is not referring to someone who is born poor, despised, and powerless, but someone who, because they believe in Jesus, becomes that way for his sake.

Secondly, it is because such a little one represents Jesus that anyone who helps such a one will be rewarded, but, equally, anyone who places an obstacle in the way of such a one will be severely punished. Jesus’ followers will experience opposition and will be persecuted. We will suffer because of our faith in him and because we reject the world’s standards and way of thinking, but Jesus promises that those who suffer for him will be blessed. Those, however, who cause the suffering can expect the gravest of punishments.

As believers, it can at times feel very lonely and that those who despise our faith are very much in the ascendancy. Society is moving further and further away from the values of Christ and turning at the same time on those who hold them. Jesus tells us that none of it will go unnoticed or unpunished.

We are, then, for our part to be grateful for whatever support we get even if comes from an unexpected source. There are those who are not yet followers of Christ, but who recognize in Christ someone special and significant. They know he has the power to cast out demons. They haven’t joined us yet, but they know enough about Jesus, so that they cannot easily speak ill of the One we follow.

Thirdly, there is, though, no room for complacency. Obstacles come not just from the world outside us, but from within us. Jesus speaks using powerful language about cutting off our hands and feet or tearing out our eyes if they cause us problems in following him. What Jesus is saying is that if anything we do, anywhere we go, or anything we see causes us to sin or prevents us from being obedient to him, we are not to do it, not to go there, or not even to look at it.

Some obstacles to faith are obvious. We know we shouldn’t do certain things because they are wrong in themselves: lying, stealing, killing are all sins, and we know we should avoid committing them. As indeed we should the more socially acceptable sins of anger, impatience, and jealousy. Jesus, however, is not primarily talking about giving up sins, but renouncing and avoiding even those things that are otherwise good in and of themselves if they get in the way of our relationship with him.

Anything that stops us from serving Christ whether it is time spent on leisure activities and interests, or the places we visit, or what we watch on our screens - and the time we spend watching it - is to be sacrificed for him. We are to sacrifice these things knowing that it is no real sacrifice. For it is far better to enter life eternal with him than to enjoy life now without him.

This is a very different type of faith to that being advocated in many of our churches. Preachers encourage us to experience the joys of this life and to make the most of it. Their emphasis is often on the goodness of creation and how it is to be celebrated rather than on its dangers and how it is to be renounced. Yes, God’s creation, and all that is in it, is indeed good in itself, but it may not be good for me, and time spent enjoying it may prevent me from doing the good that I should be doing.

We seek today self-fulfilment and fear self-deprivation. Jesus is challenging us to get our priorities right. St Paul compares the believer’s life to entering a race in which an athlete’s focus is on running the race so as to win the prize, and doing what is needed to run in it, even if it means a believer depriving themself of otherwise good things to do so (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

God has given us role models to encourage us and for us to look to and learn from. The writer to the Hebrews after listing examples of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures writes:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us …’ (Hebrews 12:1)

We not only have the example of the saints in the Bible, but also of those in the history of the Church who now live with Christ in heaven. Men and women ‘who loved not their lives unto death’ (Revelation 12:11), and who now surround us, praying for us and urging us to victory.

We may feel lonely, but we are not alone. Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow him. The way he asks us to follow is the way he gone before and in following his way we follow him who humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

May we too humble ourselves and, in his service, find our freedom, and in his death, our life.


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